10 R&DMagazine December 2013 www.rdmag.com
INNOVATOR OF THE YEAR
A Clear View from Any Angle
The 2013 R&D Magazine Innovator of the Year exemplifies the spirit of rigorous,
open innovation pioneered by 3M Company.
The first liquid-crystal display (LCD) television was invented in 1972 at Westinghouse in Pennsylvania. Like many important inventions, it didn’t
become a common sight in the average
home for several decades. It took the
combined efforts of many researchers and
several corporations to create a display of
acceptable quality in the late 1990s.
In the early 2000s, another innovation
helped set the stage for the proliferation
of LCD displays: Multilayer Optical Film.
Invented at 3M Company, Minneapolis,
Minn., the film represented a breakthrough in fundamental physics and greatly
improved screen visibility and power consumption. Today, the film is an important
component in most of the 245 million
LCD-based displays sold globally.
Andrew J. Ouderkirk, a corporate scientist for 3M’s Electronics Markets Materials
Div., led this research effort, as well as
projects that have resulted in 170 patents. Not
every product development story is as successful
as Multilayer Optical Film, but Ouderkirk’s
ability to innovate while anticipating how
products will be useful in the commercial space
has helped 3M open significant new markets in
materials and optical films. His contributions
to fundamental science and to honing the innovation process have earned Ouderkirk the 2013
R&D Magazine Innovator of the Year Award.
Three years ago, the world was transfixed by a
drama deep below the Earth’s surface in a Chil-ean coal mine. Thirty-three miners were trapped
for 69 days, waiting for a rescue tunnel to be dug
to their location, a collapsed shaft more than
2,200 ft below the surface. Their only link to the
outside world during this time was a 12-cm hole.
To help the miners communicate with their
families and receive news, projectors were
passed down the hole. Until recently, doing this
would have been impossible because projectors
were far too large. But a reflective film polarizer,
Nobody at 3M could have anticipated these
projectors would be a vital link in a life-or-death
situation. But Ouderkirk says that’s exactly
what he and his teams at 3M try to do. What’s
important to 3M, he says, is working to antic-
ipate these unexpected applications as well as
a rapidly changing marketplace. The ultimate
goal is a successful product.
“It’s very important to me to have what I did
in the laboratory actually used out in the world.
I like to point to something on a store shelf and
say ‘I had a role in that’,” says Ouderkirk.
As one of 25 corporate scientists at 3M, Oud-
erkirk’s job is to look at processes, when and
why they work and what they could mean for
the company’s product line. This ability is partly
instinctive; scientific work has always been a pri-
mary interest for Ouderkirk and from an early
age he was fascinated by chemical processes. His
earliest inkling of a future career was second
grade, when he watched his teacher create the
classic chemical volcano, using ammonium
dichromate. As the chromium decompos-
es, it glows and emits sparks, producing
lots of green chromium oxide ash. It made
a big impression.
“That was it, I knew I wanted to be a
chemist,” says Ouderkirk, who began his
studies at a local community college in
northern Illinois. A professor from Illinois
Institute of Technology visited the college
to teach and recognized that Ouderkirk
had talent in chemistry as well as a keen
interest. A freshman, Ouderkirk was invited by the professor to join graduate-level
research on synthetic catalysts.
This early break set him on a course for
high-end studies in chemistry and optics.
After this early break, Ouderkirk received
a recommendation to transfer to Northern Illinois Univ. and work with optics
expert Tom Knudsen on laser technologies.
Learning how to blow glass with lasers,
Ouderkirk found himself tackling advanced
techniques, such constructing a vacuum-sealed
nitrogen-cooled laser. This work eventually led
him to transfer to Northwestern Univ., where he
joined Eric Weitz’s chemistry research group and
learned how projects in the laboratory are turned
into practical solutions and products. This experience opened his eyes to disciplined research and
Ouderkirk came to know about 3M from his
participation in training for best practices, and
he received a call from a recruiter at the company who was looking for someone to manage the
company’s laser laboratory. For the first eight
years of his career, he was working outside the
bounds of his background in synthetic chemistry. But being a chemist, he says, gave him a
unique perspective while working with optical
materials and using lasers to create solutions in
slitting, welding and surface processing.
The excitement of his role was tempered
somewhat by the challenge: “My manager challenged me, saying my job was to develop $100
million business for the company. I had to ask
myself: ‘How do I do that?’”
Dr. Andrew J. Ouderkirk. Photo: 3M Company